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Senate budget: A bargaining chip?

Sen. Ron Gould (left) and Senate President Russell Pearce. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Sen. Ron Gould (left) and Senate President Russell Pearce. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Despite all the raw emotions it stirred and all the opposition it encountered, the Senate’s budget-slashing and gimmicks-busting proposal isn’t going to be state’s final spending plan.

Its most contentious aspects, more likely than not, will be softened and its most ragged edges smoothed out before it wins support in the House of Representatives and with Gov. Jan Brewer.

But what the Senate package does is set a marker. At its core, it says “no” to key components of Brewer’s budget, which proposed cutting less and employing accounting maneuvers to largely spare K-12 education spending.

Sen. Ron Gould, vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he’d be amazed if the proposal that his chamber passed on March 16 ends up being the final budget version.

“You’re negotiating, so you’ve got to get to ‘no.’ If you don’t get to ‘no’ you don’t know where to start,” said Gould, a fiscal conservative who is more known for bucking, rather than supporting, previous spending plans drafted by leaders of his own party. Gould, a Republican from Lake Havasu City, endorsed this year’s Senate budget.

But the chamber’s proposal isn’t just a bluff. It is a clear sign that the Senate is committed to the Tea Party ethos that led to Republicans capturing overwhelming majorities in both legislative chambers. With near unanimity among the 21 Senate Republicans on the proposal — two bills dealing with education policies each lost one vote, and a bill concerning criminal justice issues lost two votes — the budget package carries the force of an essentially united majority caucus.

What the Senate plan tells the House and the governor is what senators want to do. If slashing government spending is the hallmark of fiscal conservatism, then senators have brought out the biggest ax they could find this year.

Arguing that unchecked spending caused the state’s fiscal woes, the Republican plan aims to cut more than $1.3 billion from the budget, drastically reduce funding for the state’s Medicaid program and shift some of the state’s costs to local governments.

Among the worst hit are K-12 schools, higher education, health care and social services, which led some critics to call the budget plan a declaration of war on the poor and the vulnerable.

But despite the Senate budget’s passage, the state still has a long way to go before it has a final spending plan that resolves the current year’s $543 million shortfall and fixes next year’s $1.2 billion deficit.

Time and again, Brewer has said she’s committed to preventing deep cuts to the

K-12 system. Last year, voters approved a temporary sales tax increase — one that she pushed for since taking office in early 2009 — aimed at staving off serious cuts to public education. She also told Arizona Capitol Times she would have preferred that the Senate continued to negotiate a plan with her and the House instead of acting unilaterally.

The Senate’s sudden departure from the negotiating process also left most House Republicans scratching their heads, including House Speaker Kirk Adams, who said the budget discussions up to that point had been very productive.

“I think the approach the Senate is taking is pretty unorthodox,” he said.

What the Senate plan’s passage means is that, when those talks resume, the baseline for the negotiations will be the Senate budget, not Brewer’s January proposal, which had been the starting point for the discussion.

“We’ll work it with the House,” Senate President Russell Pearce said, adding there might be modest changes to the Senate plan but the two chambers are “together in spirit.”

No doubt, the two chambers are definitely on the same page. House Speaker Kirk Adams said his 40-member Republican caucus has “an absolute commitment” to balancing the state’s budget without borrowing, but there is some serious heartburn among individual legislators.

Count Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, as among those having a Maalox moment.

“The size of these cuts could definitely be devastating to some communities and people,” he said. “Based on the initial shock and awe, I do think there (will) be some resistance.”

Others said they would like to see deeper reductions in some areas in order to spare others.

Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, said the deep cuts to K-12 education made him hesitate, but he thinks that there could be more cuts made to colleges and universities. On the flip side of that coin, Rep. Russ Jones, R-Yuma, said the cuts to community colleges are far too high.

But both Fillmore and Jones, whose districts largely consist of rural areas, said they were unhappy with the cost-shifting to cities and counties. Doing so, they said, is particularly devastating to the state’s rural counties, which have smaller tax bases than urban counties.

“As a rural legislator, those cost shifts are not things I can support,” Jones said, adding that he’s heard his concerns echoed by other representatives from rural areas. That may end up as a major point of contention between members in the House and the Senate, he said.

And despite some of the deep cuts, the Senate’s budget doesn’t actually fix the hole in the current year’s spending plan. Instead of papering over the entire $543 million deficit, Senate Republicans opted to leave $374 million unsolved. The only way to address the problem would be through an accounting gimmick, they argued, and it was more honest to simply roll the red ink into the upcoming fiscal year than to use smoke and mirrors to ensure the budget is balanced on paper.

That doesn’t sit well with Jones.

“Whether or not you call it a gimmick is less important than what it actually does,” he said. “This is not a balanced budget.”

Adams also acknowledged there isn’t an agreement with the Senate, or the Governor’s Office, on the spending plan that was sent to his chamber. He said the House GOP leadership team still needs to evaluate the proposal and allow caucus members to weigh in.

And despite the reservations some in the caucus may have, there isn’t a sense that there will be a protracted budget fight.

House Majority Leader Andy Tobin said he expects most of the Senate’s provisions to find support.

“We’re at the same church, we’re just sitting in different pews,” he said.

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